Wraps of yore

Posted on December 7, 2010. Filed under: Waste |

-The Star-

How did we survive without plastic bags in the past?

HOW do we get people to stop using plastic bags, or at least lessen their dependence on them? The answer, perhaps lies in the past.

The younger generation may not be aware that there was once a world without plastic bags and bottles. But the older generation would recall that there was never any need for plastic. We also recycled back then when “recycling” was not even a proper word.

Chuah Paik Lean used to help her father in his sundry shop and says vegetables wrapped in newspapers tend to last longer than when wrapped in plastic.

As a young girl, Chuah Paik Lean, 65, used to help out at the family’s sundry shop in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. She remembers folding old newspapers into paper bags for packing goods such as rice, sugar, flour, salt, red and soya beans, dried chillies and spices.

“We used to have block-sized newspapers which were sometimes cut into four pieces and used for wrapping fish and vegetables,” she says. “For wet and dry tofu, we used banana leaves.”

Chuah says they also reused old paper bags collected from other businesses such as textile shops. These bags were not commonly used because they were expensive, and it made good sense to reuse them for packing customer’s items at the sundry shop.

There was a time when one needed containers to carry food.

“I don’t remember my father ever using plastic bags for anything,” she says. “Also, at that time it was common for people to carry rattan or bamboo baskets when going shopping or marketing. Even the men did so.”

Chuah says newspapers were used for wrapping almost anything, even ice blocks. She also claims vegetables last longer wrapped in newspapers than in plastic.

Monica Lim, 74, who grew up in Klang, Selangor, remembers when one had to bring along a tiffin carrier or some other container when buying food such as fried noodles.

“People back then hardly ever bought food from outside and mostly cooked at home,” she recalls. “But workers would bring their own containers to buy take-aways. And when you wanted to take away coffee or tea, you’d bring your own container too, that is, if you lived near the coffeeshop. Otherwise, people would just have their drinks at the coffeeshop.”

Lim says food used to be wrapped in upeh daun, which is the large stem of the leaf of an areca nut palm tree. The upeh daun is still used today to wrap kuih but back then, it was sometimes used to wrap meats and fish as well. Banana leaves were also used. Some claim that these leaves make the food wrapped in them taste better. That is why till today, nasi lemak is still wrapped in banana leaves.

Meanwhile, Thayanithi Kulenthran remembers fish and meats were wrapped in lotus leaves, especially wild boar meat.

“Lotus leaves make an excellent natural wrap,” says Thayanithi who founded the environmental movement, DayAnidhi Earth. “Because it is orbicular in shape with leaf veins radiating from its centre, the leaf can be folded into a neat parcel without cracking. It does not expose its contents.”

For A. Rahim Abdullah, 67, who grew up in Kota Bahru, Kelantan, plastic bags did not exist in his town till the late 60s. Prior to that, people used banana leaves for wrapping dry foodstuff and steel carriers or tiffin sets for liquids. In the 70s, he says, plastic bags started becoming popular for carrying food.

“Generally though, when I was growing up in Kota Bahru in the 40s and 50s, food was almost always home-cooked,” says Rahim. “Eating out at the coffeeshop was frowned upon. There were two reasons for this. If the food is that good, you should pack it and share it with the family back home, not eat alone at the kedai kopi. Secondly, eating there was regarded as a sign of domestic problems.”

He said it was well-known that the best type of banana leaf for packing purposes is the pisang gala leaf as it is strong and does not break easily.

Chuah says during her time in the sundry shop, customers drank soft drinks straight from the glass bottles. For every bottle returned to the shop or the factory, a rebate was given. This was recycling at work.

Lim says baby milk bottles back then were made of glass. And they did not have a plastic screw-on cap with a nipple, she says. Instead, a piece of rubber was stretched over the top of the bottle through which the baby could suck the milk.

“It was definitely more hygienic and safer for the baby,” she adds. “Also, when we went to the hospital to see the doctor, we brought our own glass bottles for the medicine. When the medicine was all used up, we would wash and clean the bottles properly to be reused on our next visit to the hospital.”

Pishu Murli Hassaram, whose family has had a textile business on Bishop Street in Penang since the 50s, recalls that plastic bags were not used in his store till the 60s. But even then, plastic bags were considered a luxury.

“They were only given to customers who spent a lot at the store,” he says. “They were the type with hard plastic rings around the handholds.”

Otherwise brown paper, folded into envelopes into which cloths could be placed, was used.

Thayanithi recalls going to the sundry shop with her parents and coming home with groceries in strong paper bags. However, she does admit that plastic bags are needed in some areas of our lives today, such as in medical waste and every day trash disposal, and waterproofing.

“We have to address the plastic bag issue with a combination of strategies,” says Thayanithi.

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